The Sopranos is regarded by many as the greatest television show of all time, and its continued cultural relevancy and viewership bolsters that argument. Almost 15 years after the airing of the final episode, diehard fans continue to watch it from beginning to end on repeat, while a younger audience still finds time to binge it despite having millions of hours of content available on an ever-increasing number of streaming services. That kind of cultural staying power is rare, and few other TV dramas can compete in that respect.
I myself have watched The Sopranos a few times through, and each time my feelings towards the characters have been different. I’ve talked to other viewers who share this experience. In the first sitting, one is usually rooting for Tony and the DiMeo crime family against their criminal competitors, the law, etc. By the second viewing, one’s feelings might be more nuanced. Tony and his crew are completely despicable, and Tony’s actions in particular become more egregiously evil as the show goes on. I have heard of second watch-throughs being ruined by feelings of hatred for the people they previously rooted for.
I tried to watch it from the beginning recently and had to stop halfway through, and I’ve resolved to never touch it again beyond clips on YouTube . Watching something in clips veils the theme of the whole work, and in the case of The Sopranos, piecemealing the show allows me to avoid its ultimate theme: cynicism.
I had never binge-watched Sopranos like I did in the most recent watch, but by viewing it this way, the patterns of the episodes were more apparent. The feeling that runs through the entire show, absolute nihilism, can easily be discerned.
David Chase – the show’s creator – has said that Tony’s narcissistic, cynical mother, Livia, was based on his own mother’s personality. It is Livia’s worldview that actually plays out before us every episode. Everyone is self-interested and deceitful. Everyone is a mobster in their own way; they are just playing by different rules. There is no altruism, no heroism, and no redemptive arcs in the show. The priests are after money or romantic flings with women, the FBI are depicted as being cold and heartless career-driven sociopaths, and the civilians are all looking out for themselves. One of the more apparent examples occurs when Tony warns Carmella that the Dean of Columbia is going to shake her down for money. What follows is Carmella very clearly being manipulated by a disingenuous university mobster. This is the energy that drives the show.
There is one exception to this theme worth mentioning. The most honorable person depicted in the entire series is Vito’s homosexual interest in the final season. He’s an honest blue collar man who volunteers as a firefighter and saves kittens from trees. He has genuine feelings of self-giving love toward Vito and even acts mercifully toward him. A moral character is finally presented, but not as a demonstration that there are genuinely decent people outside the mob. He is used as a device to deride that part of American society that still looked at sodomy as being taboo. This was the mid-2000’s, right before opinions on homosexuality began to dramatically flip.
Chase reveals his contempt for his audience and American society in general constantly. Not only does he depict characters that are as morally abhorrent as possible, he creates avatars for the audience to demonstrate that they are hypocrites, enablers, and fundamentally wretched as well. Dr. Melfi, Tony’s psychiatrist, views Tony as a fascinating patient that she can’t give up despite his sociopathy and refusal to change, just as the audience can’t give up watching the show despite its sordid characters. The chef, Artie Bucco, desperately wishes he had what it took to be a mobster, reflecting viewers who look upon the crime family’s life romantically. The Sopranos’ “civilian” neighbors, the Cusamanos, are cowards that act in pathetic deference to Tony and Carmella out of fear of punishment, but one example in the show of average people acting in desperate cowardice in the face of the evil.
As for character-arcs, they end in death, betrayal, senility, or utter loss. Characters that started with flaws end with them. Drug-addicted Christopher can never overcome his weaknesses. Tony has stretches of lucidity where he is not quite as despicable, but these moments are always brief and followed by even greater pitfalls. One of the few survivors of the show, Paulie, is given a fate worse than his own demise. After the death of his biological and adopted mother, he is left with no one but his mob family, who all perish. A man who already struggled with loneliness is shown in his final scene sitting alone in one of his mob-family’s favorite hangouts.
“It’s all a big nothing.” The heart of the show, Livia, says this more than once. Tony repeats it in a fever dream. AJ embraces this creed of nihilism as well. The specter of Tony’s ultimate fate pervades through every season, and the show takes on a progressively darker color grading leading to its conclusion in complete blackness. A great nothing. Tony is killed, and there is a deliberate extension of dead air. No afterlife. No hell. Just nothing. That is The Sopranos. Happy endings, redemption and salvation don’t exist. It is the justification of Livia’s worldview, and presumably that of David Chase’s own mother.
While the show is rooted in nihilism, it is undeniably brilliant. The fact that it’s able to frame things so consistently in cynicism and to cleverly portray the many ways in which the characters pursue their own selfish interests is a work of genius. As has been previously written, The Sopranos is also a powerful metaphor for the decline of America.
Great works of art speak to individuals in different ways and perspectives can evolve over time, and there is enough depth in The Sopranos to have many different interpretations and takeaways. My final interpretation is that I reject the ethos of the “big nothing,” and therefore reject The Sopranos.